By 2020, many people were asking what alternative milk is, and those who had adopted it were becoming familiar with the range of what can be used instead of cow’s milk. Although the coffee shop experience changed massively for a long time, this process didn’t stop.
Over the last year many of us spent even more time thinking about what we eat and drink: we have grown our own food, bought home espresso machines, queued up for basics and hunted for ingredients. We have then baked, cooked, extracted, revelled, dieted and Tik-Tokked to our hearts’ content.
As we return to a version of normal, even if it is new, this raised awareness of what we eat and drink can only continue and one of the things which will definitely be carrying on is that growing interest in alternative milks which had been building up for the previous few years.
People choose to use these alternative milks for a range of reasons: environmental, allergies, weight control, ethical and professional. Alongside the many reasons for making the move is a bewildering number of alternative milks which you can try.
We have prepared this guide to a range of the alternative milks with a mind to how they suit a barista, and to their various taste, health and allergy qualities. We hope you find it useful.
Currently probably the most popular and trendy milk alternatives. Oat milk is creamy, naturally sweet and has a lightly oaty flavour. Its fibre content can make it more filling than other milk alternatives. Lower protein than non-fat cow’s milk, but higher than most other plant-based milks. It contains more carbohydrates and sugar than many other milks and oat milk generally isn’t gluten-free: important considerations for people who are dieting or on restricted diets for health reasons, including celiacs. Its oaty/malty flavour can work well in coffee and it can be textured for espresso-based drinks though it may produce slightly larger bubbles due to its lower protein content.
This is one of the most common nut-based milks and is continuing to gain in popularity even though it is inferior to cow’s milk in many ways, lacking much of its protein, vitamins, minerals and fatty acids. The protein content of almond milk is sufficiently low that it is worth taking into account if you are considering using it wholesale as a milk alternative. As a nut based milk, it is important to remember that this is not appropriate for anybody with nut intolerances or allergies.
It does add a nutty flavour to coffee, which some drinkers like and though it can add a slight bitterness, this can be balanced by using sweetened versions though there may be a slight chemical taste from the sweeteners. It can be textured but there is a danger of it splitting.
One of the first milk alternatives to gain popularity and be readily available, soymilk is now ubiquitous in coffee shops. This is due mainly to the fact that it is in so many ways the closest alternative to cow’s milk, both nutritionally, containing high quantities of protein and calcium, and physically. It imparts essentially no flavour and it can be textured like cow’s milk, though it can curdle. Being able to use Soymilk in essentially the same way as they would use cow’s milk makes it popular with baristas. There are also soymilks produced and marketed to specifically meet the needs of baristas.
Coconut milk is another alternative to cow’s milk which is growing in popularity. It is an alternative which resembles whole cow’s milk in many ways with a high fat content which gives density and a creamy texture and makes it more filling and satisfying in tea and coffee than some other milk alternatives. It does, though lack the protein and nutrients of dairy milk and has a distinct flavour.
It is naturally sweet, though there are artificially sweetened versions available too, and it adds the sweetness to coffee that dairy milk can. It also provides the creamy density which allows it to be textured. Sweetness, though, is not all it adds to tea and coffee as it definitely imparts a coconut flavour which can be used to advantage in complementing some drinks though it could overwhelm others.
Having no soy, gluten or nut content, rice milk is the most hypoallergenic of alternative milks which makes it a very popular choice people with intolerances and allergies. It is, however, low in protein, calcium and nutrients. The calories it contains come chiefly from carbohydrates and this means it may not be appropriate for some weight-loss diets.
Although its lack of flavour means that it doesn’t detract from the natural flavours of tea and coffee, it has a very thin, watery consistency means that it cannot be textured and it can dilute coffee too much for some drinkers.
Hemp milk is seen as one of the most nutritious milk alternatives, with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and high protein content compared to other alternative milks. Unless it has been artificially fortified it is lower in calcium than cow’s milk, but the fortified versions regularly pack in more calcium than their bovine cousin (actually, the sources I consulted on this seemed mixed and it is hard to tell whether people were looking at the values of fortified or non-fortified hemp milk, however most of the fortified version do contain more calcium than dairy milk). It is a good option for people with soy, nut or gluten allergies and it boasts good sustainability credentials as it grows with very little water and no need for pesticides or herbicides.
Due to its naturally bitter taste it is usually also blended with sweetener, however this bitterness and the strong buttery and nutty flavour tend to make it less popular for using in coffee though it doesn’t split when used in hot drinks and when mixed with thickening agents in production it can have a creamy quality.
You may not have come across this one yet, as it is a relatively recent entrant in the milk-alternatives market. It has a taste and texture very similar to other plant-based milks. Pea milk is low in saturated fats and is often fortified with calcium and potassium and if it is mixed with algal oil as an emulsifier it contains omega-3 fatty acids too. It does have a high protein content which means it can be foamed for coffee and has a relatively neutral taste.
This milk alternative has a mild nutty flavour and a natural sweetness. It is low in carbohydrates and calories, and as many of its nutrients are diluted in the production process it is usually fortified with additional vitamins.
It is creamy and can be popular because although it does have a nutty taste, it is weaker than that of almond milk. The large bubbles it produces detracting from the density of foam, combined with its strong natural sweetness and nutty taste make it less popular for use by baristas. However, for some tea and coffee drinkers, this sweetness and mild flavour are seen as an advantage, especially in conjunction with its creamy texture.
This new product to the market is actually a blend of, among other things: water, oats, coconut cream, broad beans. It has been designed to perfectly emulate cow’s milk for the barista so that she can create lasting latte art, from a milk with great texture and perfect microfoam. This may well prove to be at the fore of a new drive to create blended alternative milks which offer a product almost indiscernible from the original bovine version.
There has never been a time when the public has been as educated and interested in alternative milks as they are now. All coffee shops should be offering at least some of them for customers who need them for health or ethical reasons but also, they can be seen as much a part of the rich variety of the coffee experience as different brewing methods or beans. To be able to say that a certain bean goes well with the tang of coconut milk or the mellowness of almond milk is another opportunity to provide a richer experience for your customer and to show your appreciation for their custom.